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2002-12, 336, Book Reviews, Jurgen Wegner

‘How is a man: commonplace book’

How is a man: commonplace book. Pearl Beach, [N.S.W.] : Escutcheon Press, 1999. 113 p. + 4 broadsheets, 2 leaflets : ill. (some col.), 2 maps (1 col.), ports. ; 41 x 27 cm. (in slipcase 42 x 27 cm.). ISBN 1875862145 [sic]. Limited ed. of 25 numb., signed copies.

And what a wonderful book this is! In his introduction Bob Summers writes of the book that it is unashamedly self-indulgent. In size, content … and publication (for it has only just come out). While typesetting originally started in 1988, it was only taken for binding in mid-2001 and has just been released. Summers writes that he had kept a commonplace book for years, but that this production is more than just an exercise in producing a book totally for his own pleasure (though this is, after all, the very aim of having a private press). It also has provided him with an opportunity for producing a work which could display some of the many typefaces now in his collection, as well as some less classic form of layout and design. The book is printed using a Western proofing press on Magnani Velata Avorio 200gsm handmade paper (and some others including the ubiquitous Bemboka), and with deckle edges retained. Binding is again by Herve Goarin in a heavy pale green fabric with a matching paper over boards slipcase. The edition comes with 6 (or 7) additional broadsheets, with 4 (or 5) in a pocket plus 2 loose inserted leaves (instructions on caring for the binding and a useful second copy of the index to the contents).

The contents are eclectic. We have Mitchell, Curr, Cook, Flinders and von Mueller next to extracts from Harris, Tennant, Clarke, Napoleon, cummings, Disraeli, Johnson (but spelt Johnston on the index leaf) and Lawrence. With an occasional quotation by Updike (“How is a man”), Dard Hunter and Gill. Photographs by Dupain and Summers. Even a nature print of a gumleaf and a printing from a traditional Greek bread stamp! No less eclectic is the typography: “I have long wanted to make such a book in order to put to use the hand-set type I have in large sizes”. And it is good to see that there is at least one (but more correctly: at least one other) Australian private printer who is aware of printing apart from the Kelmscotts and Golden Cockerels! Even if this is possibly only that of our own Wayzgeese. The pages are printed in a great variety of typefaces, sizes, and colours, with unusual design aspects thrown in for good measure. The Flinders texts are, for example, illustrated with specimens of Australia Post commemorative stamped postcards and envelopes. There are also photographs and linocuts, numerous letterpress line drawings and devices in colour (including a wonderful Gill nude), and a wood engraving.

The book is a splendid affair. No doubt there will be a few of us pedants raising points of typography, style, and production. Some of the layouts could have done with a bit more leading, and I noticed some under-inked caps which have been touched up with Indian ink. But all this falls into the category of the Schönheitsfehler [an error the affects the look of the thing, Ed.]. What counts here is the effort by an individual to produce something which is set apart from our usual fare of collectors’ coffee table books and mass culture aesthetics. An individual’s contribution to our representatives in the world of print. And a work into which much care and thought (and even whimsey) has gone… from the blind page numbering, the birds and the escargot, the fleurons to the miniature poem by Pound, which anyone but the careful reader could well miss, it being at the foot of the last, and unprinted, page.

If I were asked to come up with some critical comments they would mostly be personal observations on what is a very creditable piece of work. I might be tempted to mention the following:-

* With a spine label on the slipcase, why not one on the binding itself? A spine without label or blocking, even if blind, looks naked and incomplete. Maybe to make it seem more like a true, i.e. a manuscript, commonplace book?

* The fore-edge shows a generous display of deckle but the case comes a little short. It also could have been a bit more generous.

* Are there two title pages? There is a definite title page (because it also has a verso with publisher’s name and address) giving the title as: Commonplace book, and this is dated 1999. It is preceded by what I would regard as the bastard title: How is a man: commonplace book. To confuse the unwary.

* The insertion of the cards and other items such as the Hourglass Foundry’s keepsake for the American Typecasting Fellowship is a wonderful idea and enhances the idea of this as a commonplace book … a book of personal “scraps”. But why so conservative? Experimental typography has been around at least since Marinetti’s Zang tumb tumb (1914) and Apollinaire’s Il pleut (1916)1. And surely there must be a lot more personal memorabilia which could – and should! – have been inserted. Twelve and more years of printing must have given occasion to more than this Australia Post ephemera! The effect seems to me a little on the conservative side. But then by their very nature private presses (and private press collectors) are an extraordinarily conservative bunch. Especially Australia’s private printers and collectors. Where are all those special collections librarians able to educate us poor colonials in the fact that there have been some developments in private press printing over the past hundred years? Whether it be his own taste or that of the market place is immaterial. All that wonderful type spells opportunity. Imagination. Experimentation. More than just a matter of taste, it feels like an opportunity missed.

* My main criticism of the work is a quite unfair one: ‘Tis neither fish nor fowl. Which I guess is the intention of any commonplace book … to be an assemblage of miscellaneous pieces of interest, meaning and significance only to the compiler (or in this case its printer). The book seems to head in two directions. On the one hand it is a collection of texts. Then again a work on type and of typography. Apart from the text set in a variety of typefaces, there are sprinkled throughout pages or parts of pages which display some of the founts (including foundry type) in the press’s armoury. Leafing through the book I found myself constantly asking: Now why couldn’t this bloke have produced a type specimen book on so lavish a scale? Or on any scale at all for that matter? What is this reluctance by Australian private presses to produce works about the subject of the book “arts”? Is there such a dearth of material about printing, typography, bookmaking, reminiscences of the trade, that we cannot produce material on the subject here?2 While one terra nullius seems to have disappeared from the scene there certainly is another one which looms equally large: Australia’s terra nullius typographica3 (I use it here in its traditional sense of “the printer’s art”).

But this is to quibble. It will become one of those books of which collectors will say: I wish I’d bought that when I had the chance.

Let’s hope 13 is Bob’s lucky number and that we won’t have to wait another 13 years for its nephew.

Jürgen Wegner


1 The liberated page: an anthology of major typographic experiments of this century as recorded in ‘typographica’ magazine / edited by Herbert Spencer (London : Lund Humphreys, 1987), p. 82. Indeed, all of Spencer’s books are good value.

2 I should add that Summers is an exception, operating one of the notable few Australian private presses which have produced material on the subject of books and printing.

3 Anyone with an interest in the history of type, typography, layout and design can refer to the recent reference work Typography – when, who, how / edited by Friedrich Friedl, Nicolaus Ott, Bernard Stein (Köln: Könemann, 1998), a brief introduction and self-education into typographic trends and history.




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